Faced with new evidence that utilities across the country are dumping toxic sludge into waterways, the Environmental Protection Agency is moving to impose new restrictions on the level of contaminants power plants can discharge.
Plants in Florida, Pennsylvania and several other states have flushed wastewater with levels of selenium and other toxins that far exceed the EPA's freshwater and saltwater standards aimed at protecting aquatic life, according to data the agency has collected over the past few years. While selenium can be beneficial in tiny amounts, elevated levels damage not only fish but also birds and people who consume contaminated fish.
Ironically, the reason more selenium and metals such as arsenic are now entering U.S. waterways is because the federal government has pressed utilities to install pollution-control "scrubbing" technology that captures contaminants headed for smokestacks and stores them as coal ash or sludge. The EPA estimates that these two coal combustion residues -- which are often kept in outdoor pools or flushed into nearby rivers and streams -- amount to roughly 130,000 tons per year and will climb to an estimated 175,000 tons by 2015.
Eric Schaeffer, who used to lead the EPA's enforcement office and now heads the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, said the agency must take action to avoid solving "one environmental problem by creating another."
"Scrubbers will help clean our air, but let's make sure that the toxic metals stripped out of coal-plant smokestacks don't end up in our water," he said, adding that the EPA's toxic release inventory ranks the power industry as the nation's second-largest discharger of metals and metal compounds. "It's crazy not to have limits on toxic discharges this big."
Mary Smith, director of the engineering and analysis division of the EPA's water office, said the agency initially assessed the toxic emissions of 56 industries and found that the utility industry "was at the high end of the range." When it comes to selenium in power plant effluent, she added, "We're looking at how low it can go and what is economically achievable."
While the EPA has not comprehensively sampled the nation's utilities, some operations have reported wastewater selenium levels far above the agency's guidelines. Sampling at Edison Mission Energy's Homer City, Pa., plant, for example, found that it produces wastewater with selenium levels well within its state operating permit but more than 100 times the EPA's acceptable freshwater selenium levels.
Bill Constantelos, Edison Mission Energy's managing director of environmental services, said the company has worked with the EPA and has significantly reduced the selenium in its wastewater. "The standards we have to meet, we are meeting," he said.
And David Luksic, manager of environmental capital projects at Tampa Electric, said the selenium concentrations that the EPA has detected are diluted before the utility flushes its wastewater out to Tampa Bay. "It's like dumping a thimble-full in a swimming pool," he said.
But the EPA and some members of Congress are questioning whether the federal government should establish new standards to protect the environment and public health. At a hearing Thursday of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on water resources and environment, the panel's top Republican, John Boozman (Ark.), said the nation has "a problem" when it comes to utility releases of toxic sludge.
"We're not going to be done with coal tomorrow. . . . So as we do a better job of scrubbing and whatever, we're going to have even increased residue," Boozman said.
EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said the agency "is moving to establish a new water-quality criterion aimed at selenium."
"The new method specifically calls for assessing levels of selenium in fish tissues instead of in concentrations in water because selenium, like mercury, bioaccumulates in fish," Andy added. "EPA already measures mercury levels in fish tissues in order to be more protective. The agency plans to request public comment on its new criterion for selenium before the end of this year."
The federal government is focused on selenium in fish tissue because, as with mercury, the contamination accumulates rapidly in the animals' bodies and becomes more potent. Consumption of contaminated fish can trigger a range of effects in birds and humans. Birds who eat selenium-contaminated fish experience effects such as deformation of their beaks and jaws and problems producing viable eggs, while humans can suffer neurological damage as well as hair and nail loss.
"Selenium is probably one of the most ecologically toxic elements that there is," said Conrad Dan Volz, who directs the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Healthy Environments and Communities.
Volz, who testified this past week before the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, has conducted two large-scale studies of fish in the Pittsburgh area and has found a direct correlation between power plant toxic emissions and selenium contamination in the animals. He noted that this is a problem because some area residents "eat four meals of river-caught fish a week," raising their contamination risk.
Some states have had to issue fish-consumption advisories to protect residents from selenium contamination. Duke Energy used to let residents near Princeton, Ind., fish in the lake it created as a cooling reservoir for the coal ash ponds near its Gibson Generating Station, but it banned fishing two years ago after tests showed elevated selenium levels.
The utility had channeled water from the reservoir to the adjacent Cane Ridge Wildlife Management Area, which is home to endangered least terns and other migratory birds. After U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials found selenium-contaminated eggs from some bird species on the refuge, the company spent $600,000 to pipe in water from the Wabash River.
"We recognize that every action has a reaction," said Duke Energy spokeswoman Angeline Protogere. She said the company is exploring whether it can take the selenium-contaminated waste in its ash ponds and store it in a dry landfill instead.